Coghill violated federal and state special education law, school district says

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Marta Jewson / The Lens

Mary D. Coghill Charter School board meets in July 2019.

Mary D. Coghill Charter School violated federal and state special education laws by failing to provide services required in students’ special education plans, according to a warning letter issued by the NOLA Public Schools district last week. 

After receiving a parent complaint on July 29, district employees reviewed the student’s file and confirmed that the student had not received required services. That prompted an in-depth review early this month. District employees “observed patterns of systematic and student-specific non-compliance,” NOLA Public Schools Chief Portfolio and Innovation Officer Kelli Peterson wrote in a two-page warning letter

District officials reviewed Coghill’s special education files, some of which were missing required documentation of services provided to special education students. Officials also noted “unaddressed gaps in service minutes,” meaning the files appeared to show that some students went without required services for periods of time. The letter does not specify which services Coghill staff failed to provide or document. But special education services can include things like speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical education tailored to students with a physical disability. 

Special education services have been under scrutiny in the city for years. In 2010, civil rights groups also filed a class action lawsuit over special education services in the city. The lawsuit settled in 2015, and since then, the Orleans Parish school district has been under a federal consent decree for failing to provide adequate special education services. The consent decree mandates that an independent monitor produce quarterly reports and provides for increased monitoring of both a random selection and targeted group of schools each year. 

The Lens sought comment from Coghill’s board president and the school’s top administrator. Neither responded.

The district’s letter to Coghill identified nine students the school failed to serve and ordered Coghill to determine what type of compensatory services each student needs no later than Sept. 20. The students range in age from six years old to 13 years old. 

One of them is Ida Richard’s 11-year-old daughter Kaysi, who has been at the school since she was in prekindergarten. 

“They didn’t start the kids’ actual services until the end of October,” Richard said in an interview with The Lens Wednesday. Kaysi is supposed to receive physical therapy and occupational therapy, Richard said.

Early last school year, she inquired about the lack of services she was met with an odd response, she said. Eric Jones, then a member of Coghill’s governing board, told her they were trying to find cheaper service providers. 

Last spring, Richard said Jones told her that Kaysi couldn’t see therapists because of state standardized testing. 

“There were times during LEAP [testing], that therapists couldn’t come in because they couldn’t get clearance,” Richard said. “I had never heard that before.”

Virginia Miller, a public affairs consultant working as a spokeswoman for Jones, said he denies both conversations. “He emphatically denies that the conversation or conversations you describe took place and, moreover, these statements don’t make sense in the context of special education practice or policy,” she wrote in an email. 

Richard said she has continued to complain, as recently as this summer, but she said she was not sure if it was her complaint that led to the district investigation. 

She said the district is doing its own evaluation of Kaysi, which she believes they will compare with Coghill’s evaluation. An evaluation often results in an Individual Education Program, commonly called an IEP. An IEP is a contract between the family and school and is protected by federal special education law. The document outlines what services a student should receive and parents must agree to all changes made to the contract. 

Despite gaps in her daughter’s services, Richard said she’s made good progress since starting at Coghill. 

“Her teacher is a godsend,” Richard said Wednesday. 

The district’s warning identifies eight other students who did not receive full services. 

Special education problems could affect charter contract

Coghill is located in a relatively new building on the 4600 block of Mirabeau Avenue and served about 600 elementary students last school year. The D-rated school’s charter contract is up for renewal in December.

The recently identified special education problems, on top of questionable expenses and board compliance concerns the school district has been monitoring, could put its charter renewal in jeopardy. 

The warning letter, the district’s most serious, a so-called “level 2” warning, orders the charter to review all active special education files and create specific plans for the nine students to make up their missed services.

“Failure to respond to these remedies may result in escalated consequences, including but not limited to, additional intervention, reduction in charter term upon renewal, or revocation of your charter contract,” Peterson wrote. 

In June, the district cited the school for financial irregularities. A letter from Peterson detailed potentially inappropriate reimbursements to Jones, the board member. The reimbursements, for $100 in February for parking and $500 in March for food expenses related to “employee recognition,” were more than corresponding receipts. Cash for the remaining amount was returned on June 28, the day after a letter to the state legislative auditor was sent. The district later noted the receipts were issued after the reimbursements. 

The letter also flagged a computer purchase using federal funding that violated board policy, teacher appreciation day expenses of $8,709 and violations of district policy regarding alcohol consumption. According to the letter, the board had not approved the computer purchase, which violated their policies. The district expressed concern that the alcohol had been purchased with public funds. The school is developing a policy regarding alcohol. 

In the June letter, Peterson wrote that the district’s “observations will also be shared with Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Orleans Parish District Attorney, and the Louisiana Board of Ethics.”

According to the district, Jones had also directed Coghill staff not to give failing grades to students. District administrators said board members are not supposed to be involved in day-to-day operations of the school.

Jones resigned from the board at the end of July. 

In the letter from last week, Peterson outlined a number of steps Coghill must take in order to remediate the special education problems identified. 

The school must review all active special education files by Friday and give the district a copy of its procedures for monitoring special education services by next week. 

Then it must hold IEP meetings for the nine students who are owed services and create a plan, detailing time, location and service providers, for providing those services by Sept. 20. The school must provide copies of letters informing the parents of these needs. 

“Note that all compensatory services are at Coghill Charter’s sole expense,” Peterson wrote. 

The district has had a staff member on site at the school since July.

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